Monday, November 30, 2009

A fine whine

Years ago when I was a journalist I realized that my writing skills had developed as much as they could at that particular publication and it was getting too easy to make the same sorts of moves over and over again. I had reached a turning-point: the only way to improve my writing would be to work for a more demanding editor, someone who could challenge me to stretch beyond my comfort zone.

Such stretching isn't always painless, as I was reminded this morning while listening to a bunch of students complaining about the comments various professors had offered on their writing: "She's so picky; he's so demanding; no matter how hard I work on this, I just can't make her happy!"

I know as well as anyone that it's difficult to accept feedback suggesting that my writing still needs work, but I've spent enough time in the real world to know that a careful reading by a competent reader is a gift, and if that reader offers specific suggestions for improvement, it's like Christmas morning. I'd like to grab these students by the shoulders and tell them: Go ahead and feel hurt that your reader didn't recognize your true genius, but then get over it and get writing again. That's the only way to become a better writer.

Unless you're not interested in becoming a better writer. In that case, you may as well whine.

That's the kicker

I felt really rotten when I left the house this morning and the weather didn't help--between deep darkness and rain, I had trouble seeing the road ahead. But then I found myself sitting at my desk in my office in a building humming with possibility, and I suddenly felt the power of all that possibility. My post-treatment life starts today, and I'm excited to see what it will look like.

The final round of chemotherapy was tough, leaving me weak and wasted for the rest of the week. But yesterday I found the energy to go for a walk, and I also came to a decision: if I want to restore some measure of normalcy to my life, I need to stop thinking of myself as a sick person. This won't be easy. After all, every time I look in the mirror, I am reminded of the way cancer treatment has ravaged my body. This morning I called my husband over to admire a long hair, although "long" is a relative term--it was maybe an inch long, curly, and perfectly gray, but it was a sign that my body can grow something aside from cancer cells.

But if I don't want to think of myself as a sick person, I'm also not ready to think of myself as "healthy." I certainly don't feel healthy right now, thanks to persistent shortness of breath and lack of energy and some mental confusion. I could adopt the prevalent cancer cliche and call myself "a survivor," but that feels too passive. "Recovering" is certainly more active, but it sounds as if I'm in a 12-step program overcoming an addiction to chemotherapy, which is ridiculous.

I thought long and hard over the right word to describe my current condition, and it finally occurred to me that the word has been with me for months, ever since my cancer-kicking posse provided me with two theme songs called "Kicking Cancer's Butt" (read it here and here). I'm alive and kicking, kicking my way down the long dark rainy road, a road that might look dim right now but that leads to possibility.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Friday poetry challenge: giving thanks

Some years ago at a family Thanksgiving feast, a small relative taught the rest of us this little ditty, sung to the tune of "Frere Jacques":

Cornbread muffins,
chestnut stuffing,
pudding pie
ten feet high,
all of us were thinner
'til we came to dinner,
me oh my
me oh my

In church we sing Thanksgiving hymns about a mighty God who "chastens and hastens his will to make known," but ask a child what he's thankful for and he'll come up with a more concrete list: muffins, stuffing, pie pie pie. That's putting the hay down where the goats can get it.

For the past two days I've shared lists of the things I'm thankful for, both now and 15 years ago. Now it's your turn: share your Thanksgiving litany, in verse or prose of any kind.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A litany of thanks

Yesterday I promised to update a Thanksgiving newspaper column published 15 years ago. How much has changed since 1994? How much has stayed the same? Here is my attempt to tackle that question.

What am I thankful for this year?

I'm thankful that the boy who held my hand to cross the street 15 years ago now has hands much bigger than mine, hands that can carry heavy loads and reach over my head to retrieve things from the highest shelves. I'm thankful for his dry wit, for the way he loves to play with words, for his assistance at his sister's wedding, where his calm competence helped me keep my cool. He doesn't fall off his bike these days but he has faced some challenges in his progress toward becoming a pilot, and I'm thankful that he keeps getting back on the bike--er, plane.

I'm thankful for a daughter who's still singing all the time and who loves teaching others to develop their musical gifts. I'm thankful that she can bake an excellent custard pie, a skill I've never quite mastered. I'm thankful for the color and energy she brings into my life, and I'm thankful for how beautifully she and her husband are establishing their own home.

I'm thankful for a wonderful son-in-law who knows how to listen and how to encourage. I'm thankful that he understands so many mysteries, like electricity and car repair and how to fix a string of Christmas lights, and that he has great patience with those of us who don't. I'm thankful for the joy he spreads through music and laughter, and I'm thankful for how perfect a match he is for my daughter. And his hair. Let's not overlook that marvelous curly hair.

I'm thankful for a husband whose broad shoulders still carry so many burdens, even though those burdens have changed over the years. This year I'm especially thankful for those 21 lovely loaves of challah bread he baked for our daughter's wedding reception and the lovely words he shared during the service, and I'm thankful for the way he has carried me through five months of cancer treatments. I'm thankful that he fills the birdfeeders, chops wood to heat the house, grows the world's greatest tomatoes, fixes instant mashed potatoes when that's all my stomach can handle. I'm thankful for his calm assurance that we'll get through this trial, that there are happier times coming soon.

I'm thankful for my Hopeful hound, who is willing to accompany me anytime I'm ready to walk, regardless of the weather. I'm thankful for the gleeful way she bounds across the meadow after rabbits or squirrels or even deer, and I'm thankful that she doesn't often drag home the carcasses.

I'm thankful (still) for family and friends, who have stepped up to the plate in amazing ways this year to help us celebrate our daughter's wedding and help me struggle through my battle with cancer. I'm thankful for distant friends who send encouraging words and put up with my griping when I'm feeling low, and I'm thankful for local friends who bring noodles and key lime pie, who drive me to appointments, who cover my classes when I can't get to campus. I'm thankful for a terrific team of doctors and nurses doing everything in their power to help me heal, and I'm thankful for a great mechanic who assures me that my Volvo will run for a million miles or more and makes me want to keep driving long into the future.

I'm thankful for the strength to keep on teaching through treatment, for the ability to read and write and speak coherently most of the time, for the freedom to rest when I'm weak and to walk up the big horrible hill when my strength returns.

I'm still thankful for water and apples and hot soup on a cold day, but I gave up on fast food ages ago and I'm thankful that I haven't needed blood-pressure pills for almost two years now. I'm still thankful for umbrellas and streetlights, although I treasure the darkness and quiet of our rural road, where the dark sky glimmers with sparkly stars while great horned owls hoot in the woods.

These days we rarely find dolls in the bathtub or Legos on the floor, but I'm thankful for a future that might include grandchildren who will bring the best kind of noise and disorder into my home. I'm thankful for a whole mess of nephews and nieces, all growing into fine young men and women who offer hope for an exciting future.

I'm thankful that yesterday when I wanted to locate a newspaper column I wrote 15 years ago, I knew exactly which closet to look in and exactly which box to open. Chemotherapy may have sapped my energy and addled my mind, but it hasn't made me forget what's really important.

And for that I am thankful.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Thanksgiving blast from the past

Fifteen years ago when I was a journalist, I cranked out a quick and simple Thanksgiving column that garnered a lot of comments. Many readers told me that they served that column at Thanksgiving dinner along with the turkey and stuffing. It's a little sappy and undoubtedly outdated, but I'm reprinting it here today to give us all something to think about before we get too busy basting turkeys. Tomorrow I'll try to provide an update: 15 years later, how many of these things am I still thankful for? What am I thankful for today that wouldn't have even entered my mind back then? Meanwhile, you can work on your own list.

It's called "Small Blessings, Big Thanks," and it was published on Nov. 17, 1994.

What am I thankful for this year?

I'm thankful for a son who can tie his shoes all by himself, fold his shirts and put away his socks, fall off his bike and get right back on. I'm thankful for the pictures he colors of smiling people and their cheerful pets.

I'm thankful that he's big enough to go to school but small enough to hold my hand to cross the street.

I'm thankful for a daughter who can keep a secret, read to her brother, paint the world in bright, sparkling colors. I'm thankful for all the questions she asks that I don't know how to answer; I'm thankful that she never seems to stop singing.

I'm thankful for a husband who knows how to iron, who puts up with all my crazy projects, whose broad shoulders carry burdens for so many people, even me. I'm thankful for his strong hands that can tickle a child or tickle the ivories with equal abandon.

I'm thankful for music, for laughter, for silly stories and whispers in the dark; and I'm thankful for tears and regrets, for second chances and learning experiences.

I'm thankful for grandmas and grampas, aunts and uncles, and cousins; I'm thankful for a new nephew after a long wait. I'm thankful for strong marriages and faithful friends.

I'm thankful for colleagues who laugh and neighbors who don't complain. I'm thankful for every encouraging word and for strength to stand under criticism.

I'm thankful for water, for apples, for hot soup on a cold day. I'm thankful for church suppers, picnics in the park, two Big Macs for two bucks.

I'm thankful for two eyes that keep on seeing, two hands that keep on typing, two feet that keep on walking even after I drop large heavy objects on them. I'm thankful for a mind that keeps on thinking, most of the time.

I'm thankful for streetlights and sidewalks, umbrellas, snow boots, and sleds; for tents and campfires and marshmallows, for crickets chirping in the night.

I'm thankful for dolls in the bathtub and Legos on the floor. I'm thankful for letters from family, for photogaphs and videos. I'm thankful for memories.

What am I thankful for this year? A little bit of everything.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Celebratory, sort of

I had thought today's chemotherapy session would be a little different since it was my final session, the turning point toward whatever comes after the New Normal. The only difference, though, was that the cancer center was overbooked with cancer patients eager to get their treatments done before the holidays, so everything took longer than usual. As much as I appreciate the fine people who work at the cancer center, I was not thrilled about being there from 8:40 in the morning until 5:30 in the afternoon. At one point I was so annoyed with the persistent mindless yammering from the television in the waiting room that I told the woman at the desk that I would continue my waiting downstairs next to the soothing sound of the fountain. When the nurse needed me, she could just come down and find me. It was either that or tear the television off the wall and toss it out the window.

I asked my oncologist what comes next after chemotherapy, and he said, "We watch you." He's not talking about installing video cameras all over my house, either: I'll need periodic blood tests and CAT scans to make sure the cancer isn't coming back or spreading, and next week I'll start a few sessions of brachytherapy, which involves the insertion of high-intensity radioactive pellets near the place where the cancer was found--and if you think I'm going into all the gory details, you've got another think coming.

This morning I'm trying to work up the energy to celebrate the end of chemotherapy, but I'm still too doped up on drugs to manage much besides an occasional weak smile. Tomorrow my daughter and son-in-law will arrive and start putting together our Thanksgiving feast, and that will be something to celebrate--if I can stay awake. But even if I follow the usual pattern of dozing off at random the first few days after chemo, at least I can comfort my self with the knowledge that this is the last time I'll suffer that side effect.

Assuming that the cancer stays away.

Maybe that's why I'm having trouble celebrating: it feels like tremendous hubris to hoist the "Mission Accomplished" banner when I don't know whether the war is really over. I can celebrate the end of this particular prolonged battle, but the war itself--who knows when it will end?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

With a click, with a pop--phone'll jingle, door'll knock...

You know you're a basket case when you burst into tears on hearing a song you don't even like--and you can't quite figure out why. That was me today as I turned the home stretch on my route around the loop.

It was a gorgeous day for a walk but all morning long I kept making excuses to stay inside. First it was cold and then I had to catch up on all that ironing and then I had to clean up my chutney-making mess and then I couldn't walk out in the middle of "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me," but finally I couldn't put it off any more. I knew my friend Joy was out in San Diego walking 20 miles a day for three days to raise money for breast cancer research (read about it here), and I told myself, "If Joy can walk 60 miles, surely I can walk a mere six."

So I set out off down along the creek and up the big horrible hill, and I made it halfway up before I heard the first gunshots. Great: this weekend begins youth deer-hunting season, when the woods around my house are crawling with juveniles carrying guns. Most of the six-mile route wends its way through those woods, and the first shots came from pretty close by. A good excuse to turn around, especially when I was having trouble making it up the hill anyway...but I thought of Joy and kept going.

After each round of chemotherapy, it takes me about ten days to two weeks before I can even make it up that hill, and by the time I manage to walk the whole loop, I'm ready for another round of drugs. For months the story of my life has been three steps forward, two steps back, which makes it hard to feel as if I'm getting anywhere. Sure, I can walk the loop today, but Tuesday I'll have chemo again and then it'll be days before I can get all the way down my driveway. That doesn't feel much like progress.

But I kept moving forward nevertheless, and before long I came down the hill at the far end of the ridge to the sound of more gunshots, this time farther away. Then I walked the flats along the creek and soon reached a wide curve where the road goes slightly uphill while bending around a bluff. As I lumbered slowly toward the curve, Hopeful stopped in the middle of the road and looked back at me as if to say, "Come on, let's see what's around this corner!" I responded to her curious look with a bit of the song "Something's Coming" from West Side Story:

Around the corner
or whistling down the river--
come on, deliver
to me....

Now anyone who knows me well is wondering, "Singing? Out loud? In public? Who are you and what have you done with Bev?"

I don't sing in public, even if no one is listening except my dog.

I especially don't sing what may well be the most unsingable song ever written, with its odd syncopation and impossible range and silly lyrics.

But there I was, singing this unsingable song out loud in the middle of hunter-infested woods while my dog peered at me...and then I couldn't sing anymore because I was crying.

What happened to the Bev who could control her emotions, who didn't feel the need to burst into tears at the first hint of some sappy song? Drugged into paralysis, I suspect, while this emotional basket-case goes wandering around the countryside singing to her dog and bursting into tears just because a song expresses some hope for a surprising but wonderful future. Let's just not think about the gunshots that destroy that hope in West Side Story, okay? Let's just focus on the joy of endless opportunity the song celebrates.

The air is hummin' and something great is comin', but if I don't pull myself together, I'll never be able to see it with my eyes all misty.

Sick of cranberry from a can?

As I chopped apples and grated ginger this morning for my annual batch of cranberry chutney, I thought once again of the time a few years ago when we went to a relative's house for Thanksgiving and s/he warned us in advance, "Don't bring that cranberry stuff. Nobody likes it."

It's undeniably true that people accustomed to eating cranberry sauce straight from the can find my cranberry chutney shocking, but some acquired tastes are well worth acquiring. I've made this chutney every year for at least two decades now and if some Thanksgiving visitors don't like it, that just leaves more for the rest of us--and you too, provided you're willing to put it all together:

Bev's Cranberry Chutney

Peel and chop four tart apples (preferably Granny Smith). Slice one medium yellow onion quite thin. Put apples and onion in large saucepan with one cup cider vinegar and one cup dark brown sugar. Simmer gently 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, zest two oranges and squeeze out the juice. Add orange juice and zest to saucepan along with 1/2 teaspoon grated fresh ginger, 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves, 1/2 teaspoon salt, one cup raisins or dried currants, and one pound fresh cranberries (not frozen). Cover and cook until cranberries burst, about 10 minutes. Cool and chill at least 24 hours.

Now my whole house smells like all those delicious ingredients simmering...I could just about live on the aroma alone.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Friday poetry challenge: put it in park

So I'm sitting in my Volvo in a busy grocery-store parking lot on a damp, cold, gray afternoon, and my car won't start. I turn the key: nothing. Not so much as a click. Oops, looks like I left the lights on...and the radio...and the seat-warmers. Okay, I've grown accustomed to being pretty stupid in the afternoon, but this is ridiculous. Now I'm sitting in the dark in a car with no lights or heat or power and I don't even have the energy to call AAA. Tell you what: I'll just sit back and let the car make the call.

Yes: for a few hours yesterday afternoon, both my car and I were suffering from dead batteries. But this is not the first time I have resembled my car; in fact, people are always commenting about how well my car suits me. "It looks like an English professor's car," they say. It's not at all flashy, just stodgy and dependable, kind of battered and showing some signs of age, but it just keeps running (except when some idiot overtaxes the system and pulls the plug). More than any other car I've ever owned, this car seems like an extension of myself:

My car 'n' me
we both agree
it's time to take a nap;
we're sitting still
without the will
to make those spark-plugs zap.

My jumper cables
are not able
to set the gears in motion,
so we'll just park
without a spark,
avoiding all commotion.

Thanks to the efforts of a spouse who knows how to replace a battery, my car and I are both functioning properly today--a little slow, a little sluggish, but still puttering along.

And poetrying along too. Your challenge today is to write verse of any sort about a time when you've been stuck in park--with or without a car.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Multimedia musings

I'm teaching creative nonfiction next semester (hurrah!) and some time ago I decided to bring that class into the 21st century by requiring students to produce a multimedia essay. Now I have to figure out what that means and how it will work, and I need help.

Nonfiction writing abounds beyond paper publication--on blogs, in radio essays, in live performance--so I want my students to create essays employing some medium beyond print, but I don't want to put too many restrictions on their creations or teach them all some specific technology that will soon be obsolete. Let them go with what they know: pair their wonderful words with photographs and hyperlinks on a web page, for instance, or produce a radio essay accompanied by appropriate sounds.

The multimedia essay will be due fairly late in the semester, and I wonder whether I ought to allow them to re-purpose an essay written earlier or insist that they write something new. (That will depend partly on how the schedule looks, and I'm not ready to make that call yet.) I also want them to present their multimedia essays to their peers, perhaps in an evening event open to the public. Food will be involved, of course.

I realize, though, that I'll need to show students some examples demonstrating how outstanding writing can be combined effectively with other media; I have a few examples in mind, but I'd like more variety, so I welcome suggestions. I also welcome suggestions from anyone who has tried this kind of assignment before. What sorts of problems might arise? What gripes might I hear? How in the world will I grade the finished product?

Writing in this medium is a two-way street. I've done my part: now it's up to you.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Malicious menu

Evidence that chemotherapy has disabled my taste buds:
1. I over-season the sweet and sour cabbage because I can't taste the vinegar.
2. Sausage pizza has no detectable flavor.
3. Texture is the only real difference between butter and peanut butter.

Foods that still taste good anyway:
1. Chocolate.
2. Ginger ale. (Or ginger anything.)
3. Key lime yogurt.
4. Pineapple.

Foods I normally love that now make me want to spit them out:
1. Cheese.
2. Swiss chard.
3. Mandarin oranges.
4. Chicken soup.

Foods I don't ever want to see again after I'm done with chemotherapy:
1. Plain mashed potatoes. (Especially in the middle of the night.)
2. Scrambled eggs.
3. Dry toast.

Foods I'd like to gorge on after my digestive system figures out how to function again:
1. Salad.
2. Sushi.
3. Jalapeno poppers.
4. Cheesecake.

Evidence that God loves me and has a wonderful plan for my life.
1. I'm still eating.
2. Did I mention chocolate?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Sweet (gum) dreams

On the way home from church this morning I turned to my husband totally out of the blue and blurted out, "I want a sweet gum tree."

At that point any normal husband would have pointed out that we already have more than enough trees and that even if we could afford to buy a new tree, we have no real need for a tree that will drop annoying pods all over the place. But who ever said my husband was normal?

"Why do you want a sweet gum tree?" he asked.

"I like the shape of the leaves," I said, "and they turn a really pretty red in the fall."

Neither of those are particularly good reasons to invest the kind of time and money required to plant a new tree, but nevertheless he nodded and admitted that he has always appreciated the stately shape of the sweet gum--but where would we put it?

At that point he steered the Volvo right off the driveway and took a wide, meandering loop around the meadow so we could visualize the effect of a mature sweet gum tree near the bluff or in front of the apartment or on the slope above the garden. "It won't matter if pods fall here," he pointed out, "because they'll just blend in with all the other falling stuff."

It was for moments like this, I think, that I married the guy--so that one day when I shared a sweet-gum dream, he would find a way to make it grow.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Survival skills

Red-bellied woodpeckers keep visiting the feeder out front this morning, one plump and another a little skinnier. Before swooping down to peck at seeds, they perch first in a nearby maple tree that still holds on to a few bright yellow leaves. Up the hill oak saplings hold tight to brown-orange leaves, but all the other trees stand naked, ready for winter.

I'll let the sun come up a little higher before I venture out on a walk this morning. It's cold out there! I know 30 degrees is mild compared to what we might see in a few weeks, but if I wait an hour or two, I won't have to bundle up quite so much. I haven't walked much this week, thanks to persistent shortness of breath plus too many afternoon meetings, but this morning I feel good and strong and ready to put my feet through their paces--a little later.

I did take an unusual walk last night: one lap around the track at the college's Relay for Life, the Survivor's Lap they call it. I walked alongside a gentleman who was diagnosed with stage III malignant melanoma nine years ago and a two-year-old girl who has been battling cancer most of her life. I was the featured speaker for the event, which made me more nervous than any other talk I've ever delivered. There's nothing particularly intimidating about an audience of students, faculty, and staff, but instead of babbling about my area of academic expertise, I talked about an experience that defies my expertise and requires me to admit limitations. "Tell us about your journey" was the only guidance the organizers gave me, so I told them about my journey, and then I set out on a short journey around the track. I survived.

This morning my woodpeckers show how to survive the chill by filling themselves with black oil sunflower seed, while maple trees demonstrate a different approach to survival: drop everything and go dormant. I think I'll survive the winter by walking--alongside anyone else I can persuade to join me on my journey.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Friday poetry challenge: found poetry

Two events this week have made me think about the future of written communication. First, the college e-mail server was out of commission for nearly 36 hours, leading to widespread panic among people incapable of imagining other methods of communicating; and second, I read A Wild Perfection: Selected Letters of James Wright, which offers a reminder of the depth and breadth of information that ordinary people once regularly conveyed by means of letters. I love the way the poet's voice comes through in even the most mundane passages, transforming ordinary events into luminous lyrical moments.

Collections of letters provide a quirky but compelling glimpse into the lives of long-dead authors, but what will happen in the future when the written letter disappears and scholars are left with scattered e-mail messages, Twitter feeds, and Facebook status lines--some corrupted, some deleted, some lost in internet limbo? Ye shall know me by my bytes.

Which is not to say that electronic communication is worthless. Indeed, tweets and e-mails may acquire a poetic compression of expression, as in this brief excerpt from an e-mail message:

Cold enough here
for a cold-weather coat,
which is what I didn't take
when I walked the dog past hail
in those small vales and gullies
in the park beside the library.

Or this brief but colorful Facebook status line:

Sun streaming
through yellow leaves
and the scent
of autumn.

--Both borrowed from private or public messages and simply formatted to look like poetry.

Today's challenge: manipulate a passage from an electronic message to make visible the poetry hiding within the bytes.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Best. (Unwanted.) Excuse. Ever.

After all my griping about stupid excuses yesterday, I found myself this morning whining about my inability to form coherent sentences after 2 in the afternoon. "I have the same problem," said a colleague, "but at least you have a good excuse."

I can't count the number of times I've heard this in the past few months. Friends, colleagues, and even students have been eager to let me off the hook for any number of things--can't stay awake for evening meetings, can't remember to send a birthday card (to my brother! on his 50th birthday!), can't get papers graded as quickly as I used to--because cancer treatment has taken over my life.

I appreciate the fact that lots of people are cutting me some slack, but really: I'm tired of having the world's best excuse. I don't like being the person from whom not much can be expected, and I fear that I'll have trouble shaking off that label. Please, may I have my real life back?

Maybe eBay is the answer: "For sale: one all-purpose excuse, slightly used. One size fits all. Comes with bonus sack of sympathy and get-out-of-jail-free card."

I'll have to list the side effects in very small print, though, or no one will ever take that excuse off my hands.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Worst. Excuse. Ever.

First thing this morning a student walked in my office (proof positive that he knows how to find me!) and demanded an extension on a paper due today. Why? Because the college's e-mail server was down all day yesterday so he couldn't revise his paper.

Now I had e-mailed extensive comments on all these drafts last Friday so students could work on them over the weekend, but when I asked him why he hadn't looked at my comments before yesterday, he said, "Because I didn't know the e-mail would go down."

When I pointed out that, despite the lack of e-mail, we still had access to the internet, the library research databases, and that old-fashioned tried-and-true telephone, he said, "I didn't know how to reach you."

And when I pointed out that three of his classmates facing the same dilemma had actually walked to my office to ask me to print out copies of their drafts with my comments inserted, which I was happy to do, he gave me an excuse that ranks right up there with the worst ever: "I'm a lot busier than other people in the class."

And then when he pugnaciously demanded to know what I plan to do about the situation, I said, "If you don't turn in your paper, I plan to give you a 0. What do you plan to do about it?"

I probably should have told him that I'm a lot busier than other people in the class...way too busy to respond to such ridiculous demands.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Instant Tranquility Kit

Yesterday's mail brought me an Instant Tranquility Kit, including a tea bag, an origami crane, a picture of a Japanese tea house, and a piece of sashimi.

Of course it's not real sashimi. Only a fool would send real sashimi parcel post. Besides, sashimi is strictly off limits for anyone with a weakened immune system.

This is a piece of plastic wind-up sashimi on wheels, perhaps the finest piece of plastic wind-up sashimi on wheels I have ever encountered. Wind it up and it goes whirling around the way real sashimi never does. In fact, if a piece of real sashimi moved so much as a muscle, you'd hear me screaming in Schenectady.

So this morning while the entire campus is in a tizzy over the temporary intransigence of our malfunctioning e-mail server, I am sitting in my office, drinking tea, gazing at a Japanese tea house in the company of an origami crane, and watching a piece of plastic wind-up sashimi skitter around on the desk top, and I am content.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Playing possum

I would be significantly more alert today if my dog were a better communicator--or if I had a handy phrase book to help translate her urgent messages.

All dogs, of course, occasionally feel the need to convey urgent messages in the middle of the night. Since Hopeful lives outdoors, her communiques generally involve interlopers: deer chomping on the sweet potatoes, raccoons ravaging the corn. She'll bark for a little while until the threat dissipates, and then she'll stop. It's easy to ignore that kind of message.

Last night, though, she didn't stop--and she had help, too. Her best dogfriend, Duke, was over for a visit, and even though he's a gimpy old gentleman incapable of pursuing whatever is causing the disturbance, he does like to get his barks in. Late last night (or early this morning) Hopeful and Duke set up a message relay team: we could hear Hopeful's high-pitched yaps in the distance and Duke's deep growly rowlfs right outside our bedroom window.

And they just wouldn't quit.

It's probably nothing, we agreed. Probably just some dumb critter causing all this ruckus. Unlikely to be a human intruder way down by the creek, right? Probably nothing.

But they just kept barking.

Finally, the hubby threw on some clothes, grabbed a flashlight, and wandered out to see why the dogs were dialling 911. Down by the creek he found Hopeful barking her fool head off at what at first appeared to be an inert lump of road kill.

On closer inspection it turned out to be a possum...playing possum.

Garry grabbed a stick and flicked the possum into the creek, where it emerged from its stupor just long enough to hustle back onto dry land--and then it curled up again and played dead. He tried to convince Hopeful that the possum posed no real threat to anyone, but it's difficult to deter a dog on a mission, no matter how foolhardy that mission might be.

Hopeful kept barking. Duke kept relaying Hopeful's message right into our bedroom window. And the possum kept playing possum.

I envied the possum's ability to disregard the dogs' messages, and I really wanted to emulate the possum's ability to assume a slumber so deep it resembled death. But instead of playing possum, I just had to lie there and listen while the dogs told me all about it.

And now I'm telling you. Mission accomplished.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Raising an eyebrow

After my penultimate round of chemotherapy, I am pleased to report that I still have eyebrows. They're faint and vestigial, a mere shadow of the bushy Cindy Crawford brows I brought into the world, but if the need should arise to raise an eyebrow today, I am equipped to do so.

I still have a little hair on my arms too but not on my legs. I wonder why? Eyebrows and arms: aside from that, I'm as bald as a newborn baby's butt. My fingernails haven't fallen off but they've developed ridges and they look bruised, as if they've been attacked by a mad hammerer.

My final round of chemotherapy is scheduled for Nov. 24, so I'll feel rotten on Thanksgiving but I'll be overflowing with thankfulness for finally being done with treatment. Today I feel okay. Everything tastes like metal and I have to stop to catch my breath when I walk across the room, but that's pretty normal. Normal for now, anyway.

My doctor tells me that cancer patients generally take six to nine months to get back to normal after chemotherapy, or back to whatever counts as normal by then. So now I'm looking forward to a whole new type of normal, the New New Normal. It'll be a whole new life and I'm ready for it, even if it requires me to raise an eyebrow.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Friday poetry challenge: advice for writers

Today Bardiac offers up A Poem for Grading (read it here), quite appropriate considering that my primary task today and tomorrow is to respond to eight more freshman drafts, a dozen honors humor theory papers, and 24 postcolonial essays. I'm thinking about making it more interesting by writing all my comments on papers in verse.

A quatrain on comma splices:

To join complete sentences
requires strong glue.
Semicolons work wonders,
but commas won't do.

A little moody blues:

When you write about conditions contrary to fact
Oh, when you write about conditions contrary to fact
Yes, when you write about conditions contrary to fact
If I were you, dude,
I'd choose the subjunctive mood.

A transitional haiku:

Wide chasms between
paragraphs? Build a bridge to
keep me from falling.

Now it's your turn: verse of any kind providing advice to writers of any kind.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Stephen King Out-Thurbers Thurber

Stephen King in the New Yorker? The Nov. 2 issue features his story "Premium Harmony," which is simply a hoot from beginning to end. The story contains significant echoes of "A Couple of Hamburgers," the James Thurber story in which an unhappy couple rehashes one old tired argument after another during a road trip through Connecticut. King's story includes more serious disaster but still remains more lighthearted and even gleeful than Thurber's bitter tale. And King's metaphors are fresh and telling:

"He sometimes thinks marriage is like a football game and he's quarterbacking the underdog team. He has to pick his spots. Make short passes."

"Now they argue quite a lot. It's really all the same argument. It has circularity. It is, Ray thinks, like a dog track. When they argue, they're like greyhounds chasing the mechanical rabbit. You go past the same scenery time after time, but you don't see it. You see the rabbit."

The scenery in King's story is provided by a small Maine town suffering from economic decline, but, like Thurber's story, the entire plot takes place first within a car and then within a small, struggling business. Thurber breaks his story up by taking his couple inside a diner in search of a couple of hamburgers, but the change in location only pushes the eternal argument underground, where it festers for a while before breaking out again back in the car.

King similarly breaks up the road trip with a visit to a small business, and, as in Thurber's story, the husband's appetite is assuaged while the wife's most definitely is not. Thurber ends the story with the wife's self-satisfied knowledge that she will soon win a small victory that will cause pain for both of them, while King's story ends with a scene evoking pain and suffering but also suffused with radiant joy.

James Thurber's writing once defined what was meant by a typical New Yorker story, ranging from the madcap adventure to the gently nostalgic memoir to the sour anatomy of the failing relationship that we see in "A Couple of Hamburgers." Stephen King's thrillers seem as far from typical New Yorker fiction as any prose could possibly be; nevertheless, with "Premium Harmony," King evokes the madcap end of Thurber's range, joyously transforming one of Thurber's bitter relationship tales into raucous good fun. Thurber must be rolling over in his grave--rolling on the floor laughing, that is.

Snow birds but no snow (yet)

Juncoes have arrived!

Yes, my eagle-eyed daughter spotted the first of the snow-loving birds yesterday. They generally arrive closer to Thanksgiving, so I suppose this means we can expect an early winter and a harsh one. And sure enough, my daughter lives just over two miles north of here and she drove through snow to get here yesterday. None here so far, but when juncoes arrive, snow is not far behind.

I suppose this puts a little extra urgency into my Winter Preparation To-Do List.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Home office help

Here I am responding to student drafts in my elegant home office. My adorable daughter stopped by to making a warm winter hat.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Make "make it work" work

Not long ago I observed a speech class in which a problem with a video camera delayed the start of speeches, but instead of running around trying to fix the problem, the professor sat on the sidelines smiling while the students figured it out. "They know they're responsible for getting the camera set up," she explained, "So they just have to make it work."

What a brilliant idea. I borrowed this approach during my freshman composition class's midterm essay exam. I allowed students to bring laptops to class if they wanted to write their essays that way, but I warned them that I had to have their essays in my possession before I left the class. They could hand me a hard copy or e-mail an electronic copy, but either way, a late paper would be an instant F.

As time was running out, a few students found that they were unable to connect to the wireless network to send me their essays. In the past I might have offered to run around trying to figure out their technological difficulties for them, but not this time. Instead, I followed my colleague's example: I stayed in my seat smiling and said, "Make it work." They did.

Now two of my classes are preparing to give oral presentations in the next couple of weeks, and again, I adopt my colleague's approach: I'm happy to show you how to use the classroom technology and let you in the room to practice your presentation, but when it comes down to the wire, it's up to you to make it work--or have a Plan B in reserve just in case.

It's remarkable how freeing this attitude is...but why did it take me so long to figure out how to make "make it work" work?

Monday, November 02, 2009

Thoughts while scraping frost off windows

Daylight! When was the last time I drove to work in the light? Gotta love that time change. Except soon I'll be driving home in the dark.

Better get a new tiny flashlight for my keyring. Tough to walk up the driveway from the garage in the dark.

Better practice parking the Volvo in the garage. I'll need to work on making that tight turn.

Better make sure the hubby's stuff isn't scattered all over my side of the garage. That's what I get for not parking in there all summer long.

Gloves. Must find gloves. And my winter coat--where is it? Did I have it cleaned after last winter? Probably smells like a wet dog. Better check.

Cold car, cold seat, cold fingers--but thank heaven for seat-warmers!

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Nothin' for nobody

When our daughter was an infant, we lived in a trailer park tucked behind the seminary where my husband was studying. In that block of decaying trailers constantly threatening to collapse into piles of scrap metal, a group of seminary students and their spouses formed a supportive community--sharing meals, offering rides, gathering on Saturday morning to clear out a clogged septic line. We all helped each other because we all knew how desperately we needed help.

One morning I was in the kitchen eating breakfast when I heard the garbage truck lumbering up the street. My husband had already left for class, so I grabbed our one big bag of trash and prepared to sprint to the curb barefoot and in my PJ's. But when I opened the door, I saw a neighbor walking past, a tall, rangy fellow with an air of the apocalyptic. I called out and asked him to carry my trash to the curb, and he turned to me with fire in his eyes, pointed a long, bony finger in my face, and said, "You never do nothin' for nobody--but I'll do this for you."

It felt like a slap in the face--and two decades later, it still stings. I never do nothin' for nobody? It wasn't true then and I know it's not true now. There are certainly thing I won't do for anybody. Don't ask me to buy a raffle ticket, for instance, no matter how good the cause: I'd rather make a donation and avoid the suspense. And don't ask me to bake a pie for your bake sale. I'll bake cookies or fudge or banana nut bread, but I don't do pies--not for you, not for nobody.

Other than that, I've always tried to be helpful, and I've always hated asking for help. Asking for help means admitting that I need help, and that's a bit daunting--even now, when I really can't get by without a little help from my friends. Worse, though, than asking for help is asking and being refused, which makes those words ring in my ears: "You never do nothin' for nobody!"

It's still not true. I've always tried to help my colleagues whenever I can, from covering their classes when they're absent to covering their butts when they screw up (one of the unwritten duties of a department chair). Even so, this semester as I've struggled to keep teaching through treatment, I've been reluctant to ask for too much help, and I've tried to spread the joy around so I'm not relying too heavily on any one person.

I've gotten rides from a variety of friends, former students, and college staff members, and so far I've asked three different colleagues to cover classes for me. All except one were happy to do so, but naturally I obsess over the one who said no (for a very good reason!). And this week I've been flummoxed in my attempt to find a ride home from chemotherapy next Wednesday. Everyone is really, really busy, which I understand, but each refusal makes it that much harder to ask someone else.

Maybe I'll just walk home. It's only 17 miles. I've walked that far before. Once or twice. Okay, twice--long before chemotherapy became a normal part of my life. How hard could it be?

It could be really, really hard, especially now that the weather has turned cold and wet. I guess I'd better keep asking for help and keep hoping I won't hear that apocalyptic voice crying in the wilderness: "You never do nothin' for nobody--but I'll do this for you."